Athens 2004 Olympic Games Whitewater Slalom


by Cathy Hearn

Technical Director, Slalom 

Italian Federation of Canoe & Kayak

The nature of rivers is that they flow to the sea.  The 2004 Olympic Whitewater course appears as an opalescent turquoise serpent overlooking the sea from which it arose. Taking its water from the Saronic Gulf, the course rises up from its holding lake and tumbles back again in a tortuous coil at the site of the old Athens airport.

The Olympic course and its extensions of warm-up lake and training channels are constructed of concrete, local rock, and plastic obstacles, which fit into concrete pegboards, set into the bed of the river.  This system, like the one for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, allows for easy movement of the obstacles, making it possible to create an almost infinite number of rapids of differing complexity and difficulty.  Indeed, the course design team has experimented extensively with the obstacle configurations, giving training athletes a new river for each workout during part of the Olympic preparation.

The saltwater flowing in the Olympic course in Athens foams more easily than does freshwater, making this a fantastically bright and white stretch of whitewater.  That brilliance coupled with the salt provides a new challenge for the eyes of the competitors, and puts new value on the kinesthetic skills necessary for great whitewater paddling.


The field of competitors for the 2004 Olympic Slalom events has been selected from an original group of more than 160 athletes from nearly 70 countries, with qualifying opportunities at the 2003 World Championships in Augsburg, Germany, and at the 2004 World Cup on the Olympic Course in Athens. The International Canoe Federation has worked in concert with established whitewater nations to develop athletes and programs from at least 40 nations new to whitewater Olympic slalom competition, resulting in qualification race participation by nations such as Togo, Thailand, Algeria, India, Taipei, Kazakhstan and Romania, to mention but a few.

Athletes contending for the medals in Athens will include those who have already collected Olympic and World medals, as well as those who have only recently achieved their lifelong goal of reaching the Olympics.  Favorites in the men's kayak include such big-water specialists as the American Scott Parsons, Canada's past World Champion David Ford, and past Olympic medalists Pierpaolo Ferrazzi (Italy) and Thomas Schmidt (Germany).  The women's field is arguably the strongest ever, with nations like Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Great Britain earning less Olympic spots than they have women who could win medals. Challenging these and other nations' champions will be American Rebecca Giddens, who has demonstrated extraordinary strength, water sense and performance smarts in collecting past medals. In the canoe classes, the Germans, French, Slovaks and Czechs have again had their medal potential curtailed as they have less Olympic spots than they have excellent boaters.  Chris Ennis, with a strong slalom history, including a world junior medal will represent the US in the C1 event. The US C2s proved their solidarity of skill as they battled as a trio, with the young team of Larimer and Babcock qualifying an Olympic spot for the US, which was ultimately claimed by past Olympic Champion Joe Jacobi and his partner Matt Taylor.

The 2004 Athens Olympic Slalom course is bordered by a spectacular steep curved wedge of spectator stands which afford clear views of the course from all sections.  The atmosphere during the Olympic competition will surely be charged with excitement and noise, the cheering of the spectators mixing with the music of the whitewater, and augmented by the lively and expert commentary of announcers Lamar Sims and Kent Ford, both from Colorado.  

Approaching the whitewater center in Athens, the first impressions are of a green oasis, the scent of moving water on the wind, and then the view of the turquoise jewel that is the paddling complex.  Close up, the breeze carries salt spray, and the course appears luminescent and alive in its movement. The water has the most fantastic ocean feel in river form-- the features are somewhat soft while at the same time packing substantial punch, and some of them are very weird, with the variable water and boils of a big river in flood.  Best of all for new paddlers and veterans alike is the comfortable climate, warm water, and safe nature of the course.

The real beauty of artificial courses like the one built for the Athens 2004 Olympics is the legacy of whitewater that carries on beyond the event.  A course like this one, and the one in Sydney, constructed in areas with no natural whitewater, make both the active and spectator versions of whitewater sport accessible to many people who otherwise might never experience the beauty, joy, challenge and reward of playing in and around rivers.


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Last updated: January 18, 2006

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